I’ve been thinking about several exciting developments in spaceflight recently as I tend to my own nascent Kerbal Space Program— some of the real world highlights, a few notable anniversaries and one catastrophic failure. While spaceflight has been with us for decades, I’ve been playing this game for about a year and a half and it is as enjoyable now as it was when I first started. On April 27th the game finally came out of beta. With a couple quick patch updates following, KSP is mature to a significant degree. Here are some of the actual news items I’ve been thinking about while playing.
New Horizons arrived at Pluto: sent back extraordinary images and an incredible amount of new data about the dwarf planet. This completed the set of high definition images of all of the planets in the grand tour.
Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) Returns View of Sunlit Earth : The last time NASA released a full image of the Earth from space the year was 1972 and the photo, snapped by the Apollo 17 astronauts, was called the “Blue Marble.” Today we have this.
Kepler Mission Discovered Exoplanet Kepler-452b: It is the closest match of any exoplanets found so far to our Earth-sun system. Kepler-452b is the first near-Earth-size planet in the “habitable zone”– the area around a star where liquid water could pool on the surface of an orbiting planet– of a G2-type star, like our sun.
50th Anniversary of the Mariner 4 Flyby of Mars: On July 15, 1965, after an eight-month voyage, Mariner 4 performed the first flyby of Mars, becoming the first spacecraft to take close-up photographs of another planet.
40th Anniversary of the Apollo-Soyuz Mission: On July 16, 1975 two Russian cosmonauts and three American astronauts met in orbit on the Apollo-Soyuz mission. In spite of the political cold war that encompassed world politics, this mission began an era of international cooperation in space that continues today with the International Space Station and its inclusion of NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA, ESA, and CSA.
46th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing: The Apollo missions blazed a path for human space exploration. In hindsight it may appear unfortunate that NASA was conceived in the midst of what was essentially an arms race; the consequence of which was an organization that was fundamentally unsustainable once the goal was achieved. To survive, NASA has had to transform itself– slowly– into something else. Nonetheless, this consummate achievement of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth cannot be underestimated. Today, Mars beckons.
Falcon 9 Resupply Mission Failure: Falcon 9 disintegrated minutes after launch resulting in a total loss. The unmanned Falcon 9 was carrying cargo intended to resupply the International Space Station. This marked the first primary mission failure for Falcon 9, following 17 fully successful launches.
Whirl and Princess and Farmboy and just about anyone who will listen to me has heard me go on about this game. I have never felt such a sense of accomplishment playing a video game as I have with KSP. I attribute that to the the unstructured nature of the game combined with the true difficulty of space flight. I decide I want to do something. “Let’s put Jebediah on Duna [the Mars analog] and get him back to Kerbin [the Earth analog],” I tell myself. Then I have to figure out the rocket science to make that happen. It’s not easy. And this is a game! I find it incredibly rewarding when I succeed.
So this post is me discussing a few of my accomplishments, showing off a few screenshots and just blathering about KSP.
Kerbal Space Program Missions: Completed
Minmus Station : Science Station On Minmus: When KSP was released at 1.0, I decided to start a new game in Career Mode. I had the basics of orbital mechanics worked out. In sandbox mode, I could reliably get to the two Kerbin moons and back. I understood how to collect science to unlock technology in the tech tree. I’d done all that before, but I had not played using the contracts and economic systems Squad had added to Career Mode. Nor had I experimented with the experience system or specializations added to the game in version 0.90. All of those are integral to Career Mode. Minmus Station was my first major contract fulfilled: I had to collect science from a permanent station on the surface of Minmus. The station needed to support five Kerbonauts. This is my design. I got it there and managed to land it in one piece. It does not fly well. At all. I originally planned to hop around to various locations on the moon to explore but quickly abandoned that idea on descent. The good news is, I collected a lot of valuable science. The bad news is, I’ve stranded several Kerbals on the moon for quite a long time. I should probably do something about that.
Eve Surface Explorer : Extraplanetary Probe Exploration: After the moons, the next major target was to put a probe on the surface or another planet. Initial development of the Burroughs program was underway– I was experimenting with lander designs– and I knew there were a few techniques I would need to perfect if I were to make that mission successful. I would need to complete an interplanetary transfer. I would need to work out having a two-vehicle design: an orbiter and a lander. And I would need to use aerobraking from interplanetary orbit. Additionally, I needed to do these things cheaply. I was running in Career Mode. I did not have a limitless budget. So I decided to build a small probe to fly to Eve, the Venus analog. It worked. I used ion thrusters on my vehicle due to the very high fuel efficiency. The trade-off was needing to complete an hour long burn for Eve capture once I arrived. Patience paid off. The entire mission was successful from the first attempt.
Burroughs 4 : Manned Mission to Duna and Return: This was my next major science mission. In short, the Burroughs program is a combination of the manned missions to the nearby moons with the Eve Surface Explorer program. Time to get my ass to Mars! Err, I mean Duna.
I decided to try a mission profile based on NASA’s Apollo program. I built a single booster that would carry three kerbonauts and two vehicles to orbit. One vehicle would be the service module: it would perform the trans-Duna injection, Duna capture and Kerbin return maneuvers.
The second vehicle would be a smaller two-man lander module that would descend to the Duna surface and ascend again to rendezvous with the service module in Duna orbit. I constructed the various vehicles individually and then assembled them in one big rocket. Like the actual Apollo mission, the transfer vehicle detached from the booster, rotated around to dock with the lander and removed the lander from its fairing once in orbit.
What complicated things was that Duna, like Mars, has a thin atmosphere. This was useful, in that it allowed for aerobraking and parachutes to assist the descent to the surface. But it also meant I needed to include a heat shield and a powerful ascent stage for my lander, or my kerbals would never make it home.
Burroughs 4 was the successful mission. There were three previous Burroughs missions that were less successful. Burroughs 1 missed Duna entirely on the trans-Duna orbit insertion burn. My kerbals were left drifting helplessly around the sun forever. The lander on Burroughs 2 burned up on Duna descent, killing the two aboard. Burroughs 3 made it to the surface of Duna just fine, but did not have enough delta-V to return to orbit and rendezvous with the transfer vehicle. It crashed into the Duna highlands, again killing the two kerbals aboard. Unlike the real world, I could simply reset the game from a save point and start again, but the lesson is very tangible: do not hire me to fly you to Mars. Your odds of survival are, at best, five in twelve.
Keats Station : Orbital Construction, Science, ISRU: I named this station after the Romantic poet John Keats. It was my first attempt at a large-scale space station constructed in orbit over multiple launches. I had experimented with simple one-piece stations, where I built it all on the ground and then attached large enough boosters to get the entire station into orbit in one go. I wanted to do something bigger than that. I could easily see how to double the size of my station– just do what I had done before and dock them together nose-to-nose. That just seemed like cheating. Keats was my attempt to build a station that would serve multiple functions as well as teach me orbital construction techniques.
The station is comprised of eleven sections:
- 1 Station Core
- 1 Communications Module
- 1 ISRU Module
- 1 Science Module
- 4 Solar Panel Masts
- 2 Habitation Modules
- 1 Thruster Module
Each section was launched separately and connected together in orbit using a small tug craft. The tug consisted of two docking ports on a probe core, a big reaction wheel, some solar panels and lots of RCS fuel and thrusters.
Keats Station supports up to twelve kerbals. The ISRU Converter can convert ore and electricity into liquid fuel, oxidizer, or monopropellant– this is a critical piece of real-world technology for most manned missions to Mars. The Mars Direct proposal depends on ISRU. So of course I wanted to include it somewhere. The Mobile Processing Lab has the capability to process data obtained from experiments for science. Any decent space station has a big lab! The communications module allows for interplanetary transmissions and includes a survey scanner for orbital low resolution resource scanning. The station core contains a huge fuel tank, allowing for refueling operations for other spacecraft.
Prometheus Program : Minmus Mining Operations, ISRU w/ Keats Station: A complimentary program to Keats Station, the Prometheus Program comprises the operation of the robotic mining probes. The probes land on Minmus and bring ore to orbit where it is processed on Keats Station into rocket fuel. Through Prometheus I can support refueling depots outside of Kerbin orbit, allowing for bigger and more powerful interplanetary rockets. Get it? The Titan who stole fire from Mt. Olympus? Yeah, okay. Moving on.
Hyperion Program : Kerbin-LKO-Mun-Minmus Ferry: Once construction of Keats was completed, I needed a way to shuttle crew to and from the station. I have not had particularly good success with building spaceplanes in KSP, so my method is closer to the Soviet Soyuz or SpaceX Dragon V2 model, partially reusable two-stage spacecraft designed for bringing personnel and supplies to and from various orbits in the Kerbin-Mun-Minmus system. Hyperion 1 brought the initial two members of the Keats Station crew from Kerbal Space Center, however the craft and pilot were lost on the return to Kerbin– the parachutes aboard Hyperion 1 were insufficient to slow the descent from orbit; the pilot and craft was lost at sea. Still want me to fly you to space? The craft was redesigned to address this flaw and Hyperion 2 has successfully ferried the rest of the crew to Keats. Hyperion 2 proved capable of ferrying crew from Kerbin to the station at LKO and back. Midway through the Hyperion Program, Keats Station was elevated from LKO to Minmus orbit and Hyperion 5 assumed the duties of ferrying crew and supplies.
Whitman Program : Altimetry and Biome Scanning Satellites: Whitman 3 is a research satellite deployed around the dwarf planet, Dres. I included two new mods into my game: SCANsat and Infernal Robotics. Those mods defined the project. SCANsat supplied the RADAR altimetry and multispectral biome scanners. I used Infernal Robotics to create a compact launch design that expanded once achieving orbit. I like the dramatic presentation of the design. I planned to launch several of them to explore the major planetary bodies, including Moho and Eeloo. However the amount of fussing over electric capacity, scanner and solar panel orientation doomed the project. It was promptly canceled. Whitman 1 and 2 never saw the launch pad. No one hears your barbaric yawp when you sound it over the roofs of space.
Kerbin-Mun-Minmus Communications Network : RemoteTech is one of my favorite mods to KSP. It overhauls unmanned spaceflight by requiring probes to have a connection to the space center. Without it, unmanned probes cannot be controlled. It’s a great reason to put satellites into orbit, and to be precise about those orbits. Once a network is built, the satellites do work for you– namely, they allow communication among all the craft in flight. RemoteTech provides a variety of dish and omnidirectional directional antennas, enforces line-of-site and signal delay and introduces a flight computer that can be used to schedule actions ahead of time to carry out basic tasks during a communications gap. It raises the degree of difficulty, and discipline is rewarded.
At my work, I build computer networks. Many of the criteria I use at work, I can apply here. They’re both networks. The satellites serve as routers. They’re just always moving. I built my first communications network very quickly. Just putting things together and putting them up there to get familiar with the mod and the process. Once I had that down, I set out in earnest to build KerCOM 2.
A lot of practical information had to be deduced to make this work. I needed to ensure that my satellites had enough battery capacity and solar power to power themselves and all their antennas through a complete orbit. I couldn’t have communications gaps caused by satellites going down for lack of power. I needed to determine geostationary orbit. I had to design a delivery vehicle, and a procedure for bootstrapping the system before it was fully in place. I couldn’t rely on the existence of my communication network to control the probes; that’s what I was building.
The KerCOM 2 Network Deployment Vehicle carried six communications satellites to geostationary orbit directly above Kerbal Space Center. It was built using the mods RemoteTech, KW Rocketry and
Near Future Technologies. RemoteTech’s inclusion is obvious. I included the other mods for mostly cosmetic reasons. The vehicle could easily be adapted using stock parts. I used KW Rocketry because I love the look of the tanks and engines, and I used Near Future Technologies for the extended probe batteries, the structural platform on the deployment vehicle and the cool-looking circular solar panels.
The orbit was modified to a 5/6s resonant orbit– meaning I dropped perigee to a point where the orbital period was only 5/6s the duration of true geo-stationary. I launched one satellite at apogee of each sequential orbit over the next six orbits. Each satellite immediately circularized its orbit and established a full communications network above Kerbin. When I was through, I had a six-node network that provided nearly complete satellite coverage of Kerbin using omnidirectional antenna. I designed each satellite with two additional directional dish antennas, one aimed at Mun and the other at Minmus– uplinks for additional networks to be deployed around each moon.
MunCOM 1 repeated a similar process around Mun, except I only required a four-node network due to the moon’s smaller size. So I repurposed the last two sattelites. I boosted the delivery vehicle from Mun to Minmus. The two remaining satellites joined Keats Station and formed a three-node network around Minmus.
Atlantis 1 : Jool System Exploration Platform: My second attempt at large-scale orbital construction had a number of inspirations– Discovery One from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hermes from The Martian and the International Space Station. Like the Hermes, Atlantis 1 uses a nuclear-powered VASMIR engine for a low-thrust, high specific impulse design. Long, slow burns give it a tremendous amount of delta-V, at a significant increase in complexity. The modular design is based roughly on the current configuration of the ISS– minus the giant VASMIR– with a science module, a huge communication module and a structural truss with two huge solar panel booms. Atlantis 1 has capacity for seventeen kerbals and enough delta-V to achieve orbit around Jool or any of its moons.
It took me two days to arrive at the design. It is comprised of seven sections, launched separately and constructed in orbit with the use of a small tug craft :
- 1 Station Core
- 1 Engine Module (VASMIR, Argon Tank, Nuclear Reactor)
- 1 Science Module
- 1 Communications Module
- 1 Truss Mast
- 2 Solar Truss Booms
I used a number of mods to achieve the particular look and design: most of the station parts came from Near Future Technologies and Stockalike Station Parts Expansion. I continued to use RemoteTech and SCANsat for functional components. I want to establish Atlantis 1 as a remote command station, a feature where a manned vehicle can be used to provide remote control of probes without the requirement of reaching all the way back to KSC. The last two mods I included primarily for the particular look they give the game and some of the rockets. They are KW Rocketry and Distant Object Enhancement.
After completing Atlantis 1, I designed two support craft. Poseidon 1 is a small two-man lander that also uses an argon ion thruster. It has sufficient thrust to land and depart from Minmus and the smaller moons of Jool. As a shake-down mission, I launched Poseidon 1 from KSC to Minmus orbit and landed in the midlands. Poseidon 1 continued on to rendezvous with Keats Station, and exchanged crew. Jebediah and Bill Kerman boarded Poseidon and ferried down to Atlantis 1 in medium Kerbin orbit. Once aboard, Jeb and Bill tested the nuclear reactor and VASMIR engine by firing them up and pushing the ship to high Kerbin orbit above the Van Allen belt.
The Hyperion program proved inadequate to deliver the number of kerbonauts needed to supply a full crew to Atlantis 1. I designed a new crew delivery vehicle to support the large complement aboard the interplanetary flagship. Odysseus 2 is capable of bringing nine kerbonauts above geosynchronous orbit and return them to Kerbin. It delivered the remainder of the crew in two successful launches. Odysseus 1 is a complimentary unmanned supply ship that can deliver argon and monopropellant beyond Minmus orbit.
Kerbal Space Program Missions: Planned
With all of that completed, I’ve been thinking about what missions to do next. As soon as I complete one thing, a number of other options present themselves. That’s one of the many reasons I love this game. Here are some obvious ones.
Minmus Station Rescue : I need to launch some sort of vehicle to rescue all those kerbals I’ve stranded on Minmus. They’ve been there for years. I bet they’d like to get a shower and a beer.
Deep Space Communication Network : I am going to need some larger satellites in Kerbin orbit to communicate with probes and systems beyond Duna and Dres. So a mission to supplement the existing communications network is in order. Additionally, I’m going to need to do some corrective maneuvering to get some of the satellites back in position. They’ve drifted from station over time.
Poseidon Program : Atlantis 1 Jool System Exploration : This is the big one. I’m ready to transfer Atlantis 1 to the gas giant Jool and establish a long-term exploration program. Atlantis is functioning well. The Poseidon 1 lander has successfully landed and ascended from Minmus, proving capable of doing the same on Pol and Bop. Additionally setting up a remote command station for the Jool system would allow for further automated exploration of the many moons and Jool itself. I also intend to park Atlantis in an inclined orbit around the inner moon of Laythe and initiate a thorough altimetry and biome mapping.
Epimetheus Project : This is the second generation of the Prometheus program. It will involve the relocation of Keats Station to Duna orbit, the establishment of Duna-Ike comsat network, mining operations on Duna’s moon, Ike, with ISRU at Keats Station.
That’s plenty to keep me busy for the rest of the summer, I’m sure. And by that time, I suspect something else will appeal to me and I’ll be off on another interplanetary adventure.
ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS EXCEPT EUROPA. ATTEMPT NO LANDINGS THERE.